However, St Peter's is the obvious photo used whenever the Vatican or the Roman Church is mentioned, and as such it is an immensely powerful symbol of the Catholic Church, recognised outside the Church and by people with absolutely no interest in Catholicism, Christianity or religion.
The Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls (Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura) is perhaps slightly less well known (apart from a brief burst of fame in 2008, when there was media speculation about its Abbot, Edmund Power, potentially having been in the running for the post of Archbishop of Westminster), but like St Peter's and like St John Lateran is one of the four ancient Papal Basilicas to be found in Rome. The fourth is Santa Maria Maggiore, of which more some other time.
The sites of both Basilicas have been places of pilgrimage from very early, and indeed long before it became "safe" or "established religion" to perform such acts of devotion. Henry Vollam Morton, the journalist and travel writer (perhaps best known for being the first to break the story, in the Daily Express, of Lord Caernarvon and Howard Carter's opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun) put it like this in his 1959 book This is Rome :
It is extraordinarily interesting that Roman pilgrimage began at an…early time. Pilgrims did not wait for the Peace of the Church [Constantine’s edict of toleration] before they visited the tombs of the Apostles. They went to Rome a century before there were any public churches and when the Church was confined to the tituli [private homes] and the catacombs. The two great pilgrimage sites were exactly as today—the tombs, or memorials, of St. Peter upon the Vatican Hill and the tomb of St. Paul off the Ostian Way.People have oftened question whether the ancient relics in St Peter's and St Paul's are what they say they are. However, much investigation has been carried out on this.
Years of architectural work at St Peter's (exploring areas of the Basilica that had not been accessible since the 9th century) led to Pope Pius XII proclaiming in December 1950 that although we could not be absolutely certain at that time that the remains in St Peter's were indeed those of St Peter, certain convincing evidence had come to light that pointed in that direction, and that therefore it was believed that the tomb of St Peter had been found. Tradition held that St Peter had been buried on the Vatican Hill, and that since that time, martyrs, popes and other Christians had been buried nearby : the architectural work certainly showed that the Vatican had been built over a cemetery that dated back to the right period. At the lowest level of the various levels of burials, an aedicula containing bone fragments wrapped in tissue with gold decorations and precious murex purple : this would certainly indicate the burial of someone considered to be of great importance.
Further work, including the discovery of an inscription, and the testing of bones showing that they belonged to a man of 60-70 years of age, led to Pope Paul VI declaring in 1968 that the matter was now beyond doubt.
As to the remains of St Paul in the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls, the formal confirmation of the discovery of the white marble sarcophagus of St Paul was made in 2006 (although a 19th century chronicle entry from the Benedictine abbey next to the Basilica comments briefly on the discovery of the sarcophagus). The sarcophagus was then analysed until 2009. Carbon dating carried out during that process showed that the bone fragments found in the sarcophagus of St Paul did indeed date from the first century AD, and that grains of incense and pieces of purple linen had been found alongside the bone fragments. Pope Benedict XVI announced in December 2009 that this seemed to add convincing weight to the uninterrupted tradition that the remains of St Paul's are buried in the Basilica.
For some light relief before the next section of this post, which gets a little serious, here is a selection of photos of St Peter's accompanied by the Sanctus from Schubert's Mass in E flat.
The Holy Father begins his travels to Benin today, a country that, along with most of Africa, is seeing exponential growth of Catholicism (Benin has roughly 500,000 more Catholics than it did ten years ago). This growth sits oddly with the crazed cries of much of the media whenever the Holy Father visits or talks of Africa, virtually accusing him of personal involvement with a deliberate campaign of mass murder. The fuss when Pope Benedict visited Cameroon and Angola two years ago, when the media extracted one sentence from his in-flight pre-visit address to journalists and spoke of nothing else was utterly scandalous, yet absolutely predictable : no talk of the growth of the Church in Africa, no talk of Church schools, Church hospitals, Church activity to support and treat those with AIDS and other diseases, Church orphanages, Church aid to the poor, and of course no talk of anything even vaguely touching on the spiritual.
I hope the point is not silly, but this is the precise opposite of the way the media treated the recent death of Sir Jimmy Saville. There was much talk of his immense and unquestionably marvellous charitable deeds (for which he received a Papal Knighthood), which was very welcome publicity for doing good works : but there was no mention of him attending Mass on an almost daily basis. There, no credit could be given to Sir Jimmy's Catholicism, but when there is anything for which it is believed (rightly or wrongly) that "blame" is "needed", then the media are very keen on blaming Catholicism as a whole, and indeed the Pope himself.
Let us hope and pray that the media are going to be slightly more balanced during this trip, but sadly it seems that the media are not only sex-obsessed but lazy : a quick search on the internet reveals that the same old blinkered nonsense is being rehashed, of course entirely removed from the full context of the discussion. Nobody expects all journalists to agree with what the Pope says, nor to praise him, but it would be nice to have a proper, reasoned discussion, rather than just be witness to the de-contextualised slinging about of extreme accusations.
Anyway, the work of this modern Successor of St Peter is for the "common good", just as was the work of St Peter himself. Let us wish the Holy Father well on his trip.
St Peter, St Paul, all Saints of Africa, pray for us.